The first replica I built of a guitar by 19th century London guitar maker Louis Panormo introduced me to a number of features typical of instruments of that time and in particular of the instruments of that maker. It also raised for me a number of questions about these instruments. These were fascinating enough to me that I thought they may be of general interest to luthiers, those familiar with instruments of the period and those that are not. This article discusses a number of these “mysteries” and some of my own speculation about why the maker did what he did. It also points out just a few of the many interesting design features of these beautiful instruments. This article originally appeared in American Lutherie.
Initial appearance: December 17, 2021
Last updated: December 17, 2021
Copyright © 2017 R.M. Mottola
[This article originally appeared in American Lutherie #132.]
One of the classics of lutherie literature is the book The “Secrets” of Stradivari by violin historian Simone F. Sacconi. This thick book contains much detailed information on the instruments of the Cremonese master violin maker, enough so that, for some readers, what may have once been considered to be true secrets of design and construction are revealed. The title of this article is a takeoff on that of Sacconi’s book. Sacconi spent a lifetime researching the instruments detailed in his tome and so the information imparted there can be considered to be definitive. Following completion of my first construction project of a replica instrument by 19th century guitar maker Louis Panormo (photo 1), I was in nowhere near a position to assume expertise in the “secrets” of Panormo’s guitars. But that project did introduce me to a number of features typical of instruments of that time and in particular of the instruments of that maker. It also raised for me a number of questions about these instruments. These were fascinating enough to me that I thought they may be of general interest to luthiers, those familiar with instruments of the period and those that are not. This article discusses a number of these “mysteries” and some of my own speculation about why the maker did what he did. It also points out just a few of the many interesting design features of these beautiful instruments.
Headstock shape. The distinctive shape of the Panormo headstock as seen in photo 2 features tapered slots, something not found on contemporary instruments. The tapered slots require the use of tuning machines with rollers of different lengths; short rollers near the nut and longer ones near the top of the headstock. Turns out that guitars from England, France and other European countries made use of such tapered slots and the machines with different length rollers too. My speculation here is that this was simply an artifact of the introduction of the new technology of machine tuners. Louis Panormo built instruments during the time when geared tuning machines were just becoming generally available and popular. As is the case with the introduction of any new technology, standards for tuning machine dimensions had not yet evolved during Panormo’s time. Eventually we would have standardized roller diameter, length and spacing, and these would imply dimensions for the slots, but that was a ways off in the future.
Headstock V-joint. The maple headstock is attached to the Spanish cedar neck shaft using a traditional V-joint. Such joints had been used to attach guitar peg heads for years. Jim Buckland provided a good drawing of the construction of this joint in his article in American Lutherie #103 entitled “19th-Century Guitar Making Techniques.” It is a somewhat complicated joint, because the thickness of the tenon tapers not only along the length as viewed from the back (as can be seen in photo 3) but also along the length as viewed from the side and across the width as viewed from the end. Since the Panormo headstock is made from a solid piece of maple the mortise cannot be sawed out but must be chiseled. Although this type of joinery may be rare in modern instruments it was quite common to find such work in guitars of the 19th century.
A mysterious feature of Panormo’s headstock joint is that it is shoulder-less. This results in the joint forming an acute angle at the sides of the neck where headstock tapers down to shaft. Acute angles in visible joints are generally eschewed in woodworking because the skew makes the glue line appear wide, and also because it is difficult if not impossible to retain a clean edge on the piece of wood that tapers down to nothing. Most of the instruments I looked at when researching for my construction project showed wide glue joints and ragged edges of the thin headstock wood at this joint along at least one side. The glue joint of my project guitar is quite wide on one side too, as can be seen in photo 4. It is curious that instruments built otherwise with such attention to woodworking detail would have this shoulder-less joint. Also there are many examples of earlier instruments that made use of shoulders (so that the joint seam would remain approximately perpendicular to the side surface of the neck) or that just left the shaft ends of the headstock wider than the shaft. An example of the latter can be found in the plan of a Stradivari guitar in Jan van Cappelle’s article “Antonio Stradivari, Guitar Maker”, which appeared in American Lutherie #122.
The only thing I can think of to explain this mystery has to do with Panormo’s own instrument building chronology. Panormo built two guitar models for much of his career. The model he began with is what is now generally referred to as the Panormo Fecit model. He eventually added a second model, which is now generally referred to as his “Guitars in the Spanish Style” model. These terms are taken from the instruments’ respective labels. Panormo Fecit guitars were ladder braced and featured (usually) maple bodies, with rosewood bindings and black painted necks. The “Spanish Style” guitars were fan braced and featured (usually) rosewood bodies, and had rosewood bindings and natural finished necks. In his PhD dissertation on 19th century London guitar builders (the mother lode of information about Panormo instruments, reviewed by me in American Lutherie #117) entitled Guitar Making In Nineteenth Century London, James Westbrook points out that even Panormo’s black-painted necks featured this V-joint. This is interesting to us moderns, who often consider such joinery to be just for show, but at that time it primarily served a functional purpose. The issues raised above about the shoulder-less V-joint are aesthetic only and would not have been visible when painted over. It is possible that Panormo simply retained this joint when he began building the “Spanish Style” guitars, even though the necks of these featured natural finishes.
Long neck shaft scarf joint. Panormo’s guitars used typical Spanish heel construction, with the ribs set into slots cut into the heel block. According to Westbrook the ribs were sometimes fitted into narrow slots and sometimes fixed into wide slots with wedges. I used the wide slots and wedges method for my project (photo 5). The neck shaft and heel assembly uses a separate piece for each – a thinner (probably 1” thick) piece for the shaft, and a shorter and much thicker piece for the heel and internal foot and top shelf (more on the latter in a bit). Although such construction is not uncommon, Panormo’s instruments joined these pieces together with a long diagonal (as viewed from the side of the neck) scarf joint. See photo 6. It is interesting to note that, in the instruments I’ve seen and in photos of others, no attempt seems to have been made to color-match the heel and shaft pieces. It is even possible that different species may have been used for the two pieces. As a matter of authenticity my replica instrument is not so accurate in this regard. Having selected the wood in my inventory specifically for good color match I could not find pieces for this project that were as mismatched as is typical of original Panormo guitars.
It is highly likely that the shaft and block were made of separate pieces for primarily the same reason it has been done this way before and since, to reduce waste and thus cost of materials. But I hypothesize two reasons for the use of this particular long joint. The only other type of instrument in which I have ever seen this joint used is the double bass. Louis Panormo was from an Italian (probably Sicilian) violin making family. His father Vincenzo built double basses and is one of the most highly regarded builders of that instrument. So it is possible that this joint was simply in the family repertoire of lutherie techniques. The other reason is the strength and reliability of the joint. Ending up about three times the length of a straight joint in this location, this diagonal scarf joint provides a lot more gluing area. As is abundantly clear from Westbrook’s thesis, 19th century London guitar makers were concerned about glue joint reliability, or at least made a big marketing issue of it. Panormo’s guitars were built at the height of the British empire, were glued with hide glue, and were expected to hold together in hot and humid colonies as well as during the long voyages to them. There is much in the construction of his instruments that is likely due to this requirement. This hypothesis will also come up in the discussion of bracing mysteries below.
On a side note, I must admit that I am quite fond of this joint for simply aesthetic reasons. I often build neck blanks using a separate block for the heel anyway, and I think this joint adds a classy touch and so have been using it for other instruments. It is not that much more difficult to implement than a straight joint.
Upper platform of heel block. Unlike guitars of what we now consider to be typical Spanish construction, Panormo’s instruments featured a large thick upper platform as part of the heel block. This platform supported the top directly underneath the fretboard extension. Photo 7 shows the heel of my instrument during construction. The typical Spanish foot can be seen at the top (the neck is inverted in the photo) and the upper platform is visible below that.
This feature is probably not too hard to figure out. Just before and also during Panormo’s time guitars often featured fretboards that were flush with the instrument’s top and ended at the body. Many such instruments added some frets over the body for extended range. These frets were embedded in the top, which of course was not thick enough to support them, and so a shelf was added under the extension area of the top for support of these frets. In fact Louis Panormo manufactured some instruments in this style. Westbrook’s thesis mentions two, a miniature “bambino” guitar, and a guitar built specifically for Antonio Trinitario Huerta, a Spanish guitar virtuoso who settled in London following an extended and successful tour in the USA. The first known instrument attributed to Louis Panormo is also of this construction. But this shelf appeared in all of Panormo’s guitars, most of which featured fretboards that extended over the top as is typical of guitars today. So it is possible that this feature remained simply due to design inertia, but it is also possible that it was retained to add some support and stiffness in this area. The fretboards of Panormo’s instruments are made of rosewood and are quite thin and so the fretboard extension does not provide anywhere near as much stiffening in this area of the instrument as would a thicker board. It is also possible that it has something to do with the next two mysterious features I’ll mention. In private correspondence James Westbrook mentioned that whatever the builder’s intent, original instruments are particularly mechanically stable in this area.
Block between platform end and upper transverse brace. There is less than an inch of space between the end of the above-mentioned heel block platform and the upper transverse brace. Between the two is a small block, the purpose of which is a mystery to me (photo 8). The block is not as wide as the platform, nor is it as thick. In some instruments its location is skewed to one side. It contacts the end of the shelf and the upper transverse brace. On some instruments it is slightly wedge-shaped. I don’t have any idea what this one is for, except possibly to help locate the top relative to the neck during assembly of instruments with fretboard top surface flush with the instrument top. As mentioned Panormo did make a few instruments in this style.
Fret slots on the top under fretboard extension. But wait, it gets stranger! Westbrook’s dissertation features a photo of an instrument awaiting repair that has its fretboard removed. On the top, under where the fretboard extension would be, are saw marks apparently in the places where the frets of the fretboard extension will be. The dissertation asserts that these have been found under the fretboard extensions of more than one instrument. This is strange indeed and I can think of no likely explanation that fits all the facts. The builder was certainly parsimonious where materials were concerned and a re-purposed top from a junked instrument could explain a single example of this but probably not more than one. That fret slots would have been sawn after the instrument was assembled is a possibility; this would be more likely for earlier instruments with flush fretboards but the technique could have been continued for fretboards over the top. And some of that sawing could have sawn through the thin fretboard near its center if a curved bottom saw was used. But this is a whole lot of coulda. For me at least, this feature of the instrument remains a mystery. In my replica guitar I sawed such slots anyway, using a curved bottom veneer saw. See photo 9.
Non-bookmatched top. None of the original instruments I examined during my project had bookmatched tops. All had single piece tops with the wide grain on the bass side. Westbrook indicates that some instruments do make use of two piece tops but in these the top is essentially one piece but with a narrow filler piece added on one side, so the seam between the two pieces of the top is way over on one side. Neither of these features is uncommon in guitars of the period. The instruments were narrow, and wider top material was probably more readily available then. The technique for extending the width of slightly too narrow top material is interesting though. This certainly would make for more efficient use of wood than would using a bookmatched top. Westbrook states that more asymmetrical fan bracing was used for these two piece tops, and from the photos in his dissertation it would not surprise me if this was done simply to be sure a fan crossed the top seam to help keep that joint together under adverse conditions.
‘P’ on upper transverse brace. At some point Louis Panormo began carving a small letter ‘P’ in the center of the upper transverse brace so it could be visible through the soundhole if the instrument were positioned appropriately. Note though that the position of the mark and the fact that Panormo painted the exposed light wood inside the guitar (see below) would make this difficult to see unless you were looking for it. This identifying mark is likely to be there for obvious reasons and so is not much of a mystery. It is however a distinguishing feature of his instruments (photo 10).
Pocketed and bracketed brace ends. In the discussion of the long neck shaft scarf joint above, I speculated that a number of features of Panormo’s guitars could be attributed to a requirement that the instruments hold together in hot and humid climates. Probably the most compelling evidence for this possibility is seen in the bracing. We would generally consider the bracing scheme of his Spanish style guitars to be conventional Spanish guitar construction these days. The backs were braced with two (later three) transverse bars and the tops featured the usual upper and lower transverse braces and fan bracing below. But there are essentially no floating brace ends anywhere in the instrument. The ends of the back braces are let into the linings. The ends of the top transverse braces are bracketed, and the bottom ends of the brackets are generally let into (actually covered over) by the tops of the back linings as well. The ends of the fan braces at the lower transverse brace are bracketed by a small piece attached to the transverse brace (photo 11). The other ends of the fan braces are either pocketed into the tail block (photo 12) or are bracketed by peones (photo 13).
No bridge patch. Westbrook indicates that bridge patches were not a standard feature. This seems odd today because the guitar uses a pin bridge and the string knots can easily damage the soft spruce top. All of the instruments I examined had patches of some hardwood added after the fact on at least one of the bridge pin holes. I have no idea if the damage that was repaired happened during the time of Panormo’s production. For my replica I included individual maple patches of the size, shape and locations that would have been used to patch damaged pin holes after the fact. These can be seen in photo 12.
Pierced tentellones/peones. The tops of these guitars are joined to the ribs using peones as is typical of instruments of this era. An interesting detail of one instrument I examined is that every other peón had a small prick mark near its center. This was easily visible through the soundhole of the original instrument using some interior lighting and an inspection mirror. Westbrook’s thesis mentions this in some instruments he examined too. This mystery was solved, to my satisfaction at least, while I was assembling the replica guitar. I am no fan of peones. I’ll use them only in cases where historical accuracy is a requirement, but the effort of emplacing each one with tweezers, holding it down right next to the previous one until the glue grabs, and trying hard not to bump into and knock off any of the previously placed pieces is so dreadfully tedious that I can do only a short section at a time. But I realized during construction that a far less nerve-wracking way to do this is to first emplace every other peón, and then in a second loop around the top fill in between the ones put down during the first pass. Because of the non-crowded spacing during the first pass, the peones can be easily held with the fingers. During the second pass they can be held with tweezers, but to reduce the chance of disturbing neighboring pieces, it is easier to pierce each one with the point of a dental probe and hold it in place that way (photo 13). For me, a big problem and a minor mystery solved.
Painted insides. The insides of Spanish style guitars by Panormo were painted with a dark purplish brown thin paint or thick stain. From the instruments I’ve examined there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what was painted or left unpainted. Sometimes the entire inside of the instrument save the top and peones was painted. In other instruments just the light colored wood (braces, patches, linings, heel, etc.) was painted, and then usually just that which would be visible through the soundhole. Looking at the underside of the top using an inspection mirror reveals a pretty sloppy job of paint application too. The surfaces of the transverse braces and rosette reinforcements that are visible through the soundhole are always well covered, but the surfaces of those same components that cannot be seen through the hole are usually left unpainted. Because the focus seems to have been to cover the interior components made of light colored wood and visible through the soundhole, and because the color of the paint used approximates that of the rosewood back and sides, it is easy to assume that the painting was done for aesthetic reasons only.
In my replica instrument I used a paint made from 2lb cut shellac and fresco pigments. Although color mixing can be quite a skill, mixing up a dark brown color does not require any particular expertise. It was interesting as an exercise in self-realization to note how difficult it was for me to slop this stuff on in a manner that would achieve historically accurate results.
Integral bridge saddle. The bridges on Panormo’s guitars featured integral saddles. Rather than using a separate piece of bone or other material in a slot as we are familiar with today, in these instruments the front edge of the bridge itself rises up to form a saddle. See photo 15. As such the Panormo bridge is itself a technological “bridge” between the saddle-less tie bridge of lutes and earlier guitars and the currently popular saddle-in-slot modern guitar bridge. Earlier saddle-less bridge design is possible because the strings are anchored to the bridge by tying. The vibrating length of each string simply ends at the hole through with the string is tied. Such bridges offer no simple way to adjust action.
Panormo’s bridges used pins to anchor the strings and so a saddle-less approach is not really possible, so a separate means of terminating the vibrating length of the string is needed. A saddle is a logical way to do that. Action can easily be adjusted down with such a bridge by removing material from the top of the integral saddle and re-working the gully between saddle and bridge pins to keep the saddle edge sharp. Adjusting for higher action is not really possible. Although these bridges do not offer the ease of action adjustment of bridges with replaceable saddles, they certainly did offer easier down action adjustment than did their saddle-less predecessors.
Big end pin, back buttons. The first time I saw one of these guitars the question that came into my mind was about these strange fittings. Panormo’s instruments have a large diameter end pin, and two small buttons on the back, one at each end of the body, as seen in photo 16. These are all made of bone. The back buttons are fixed to the back, their shafts glued into small holes (photo 17). The end pin is a two piece affair, with a tapered shaft glued into a hole in the body tail. The other end of this shaft is threaded. The other piece is the large button which is also threaded and is therefore removable (photo 18).
The instrument could either be suspended from a strap tied to the end pin and the headstock, or could be invisibly tied to the player using lengths of string or gut tied to the back buttons and then to parts of the player’s clothing, like buttons, button holes and belt loops. I am still puzzled by the size of the end pin button and the intended purpose of making it removable. In private correspondence James Westbrook mentioned that straps of this time were made of ribbon and were tied on, so a large button would help secure the strap to the instrument. Removing such a strap would be an issue and could have been difficult without pulling the end pin, so the threaded button may have been intended to help in that case. This latter feature was probably not a complete success. On all of the instruments I examined for this project, the threads of button or shaft were obviously stripped, or the button had been glued to the shaft, probably indicating stripped threads in those instruments as well.
As is the case for most historical instruments, there are many more odd and interesting features of the guitars of Louis Panormo than just the handful identified here. For folks that are unfamiliar with instruments of this period I hope this article stimulates interest in them and in particular for those of this maker. Anyone interested in the guitars of Panormo will want to read Westbrook’s thesis, which fortunately will soon be published as a book. I’d love to hear from anyone that has answers to my questions about some of the truly mysterious features pointed out in this article. And if you’d just like to join in the speculation I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts. It has been an enjoyable exercise for me and will continue to be so. It is interesting to take a look into the past, and fascinating to do so when only limited information is available. I am not a historian and so I have neither the training nor the discipline to view things from a strictly historical perspective. As I’m sure is apparent to instrument historians reading this article I carry all my modern assumptions and prejudices with me when I look at these artifacts from the past.
James Westbrook was kind enough to look over a draft of this article and gently correct a number of its deficiencies. I am most grateful for his knowledge and help.